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JULY 28, 2003 -> Blissful in Beijing

People love to ridicule Americans' love of burgers and resulting girth. But I am unashamed to admit that the first thing I ate on my return to Beijing was a big, fat, cheeseburger with all the trimmings. Nori ate a Philly cheese steak. We both ate a lot of french fries, and finished with apple pie and a huge brownie. As noted in earlier travelogues, Mongolian food is unlikely to join the ranks of Indian, Chinese, Thai, French and Italian as "World Cuisines" any time soon. So after nearly a month in the land of the mutton-munching khans, we needed some home cookin', and Grannies Kitchen in Beijing was just the place.

Earlier that morning, we had arrived at the Beijing Central train station. Going from one of least densely populated places in the world to the world's most populous nation is an incredible shock. During our month in Mongolia, I do not remember banging shoulders with anyone. In China, you bang shoulders with everyone. I have a theory (backed by empirical evidence) that large numbers of Chinese behave exactly like the atoms in a gas.

1) They expand to fill any space they are placed in. For instance, on a wide sidewalk, two people walking towards you will force you onto the street as they pass.

2) They move following the laws of Brownian (essentially random) motion. This explains the large number of people who, without warning, suddenly whirl around and head the opposite direction.

But we pushed through the crowds and caught a taxi (the driver, of course, overcharged us) with smiles on our faces, because we knew that we had something to look forward to. We were staying with the Oro's: David (a Filipino-American PR executive-cum-DJ, and Patricia, his Chinese-Argentine event coordinator and wife-to-be) in their modern Beijing flat. We had met David and Patricia when we were living Sydney, and they were kind enough to put up with two stinky backpackers for a week. Independent and intrepid travel is fantastic, but let me tell you, air conditioning and a maid aren't bad either.

We had planned on staying in Beijing only three days, but when Patricia told us that David was going to be DJ'ing at a posh nightspot later in the week, we decided to stick around. So with almost a week in Beijing, what did we do? Very little, actually. I dyed my hair black, which together with my now very full beard, completed my Central Asia disguise. Nori got her nails done with the girls and indulged in a little shopping. Oh, and we ate a lot of really good Chinese food. On our second day, we met up with friends we had made in Mongolia (Daniel, Nicole and Suzanna) and enjoyed an amazing Sichuanese meal. OK, OK, we did see a few things...

Beijing had changed a lot in the six years since my first visit. The saplings that lined the road from the airport to the city center had grown dramatically, blocking the view of ugly industrial areas and squalid neighborhoods. The city was superficially richer and glitzier, but I still felt that this wealth touched only a small portion of the inhabitants. New, gleaming shopping malls played to increasingly Western tastes, and Starbucks Coffee shops were opening everywhere. Beijing had become much more fashion conscious, though the "name brands" so prized were often poor knock-offs, such as Tommy Hlifiger or Clavin Kleen.

The pollution was much worse. During our week in Beijing we never saw the sky or the sun, only a thick haze. After the second day, we were coughing up black phlegm and wiping layers of grime and soot off our faces. Beijing was preparing itself for the 2008 Olympic Games, but I struggled to imagine how they could provide an environment suitable for the peak of athletic performance. Decades of unchecked industrial growth cannot be cleaned up in eight years. Major contributors to the haze were the numerous coal-powered electricity plants and coal heating furnaces located throughout the city. China had recently inked a deal with Australian suppliers to provide Beijing with significant amounts of natural gas to replace some of this demand, but I wondered if it would be enough. Swimming and basketball events would be just fine, but where would they hold the marathon?

The China National Art gallery had just reopened after a long and expensive refurbishment. The massive building housed an comprehensive collection of Chinese artwork: from classic landscape, bird and flower paintings, to modern abstract pieces. On the second floor was a exhibit of foreign pieces donated by a German art collector, which included several Picassos and a work by Jasper Johns. But most of the pieces from the last 100 years were highly political: smiling Communist leaders, happy peasants, and Mao, Mao, Mao. The closest the museum came to social commentary were several pieces featuring Chinese in western business suits, looking lost and pained by the demands of the new economy.

Braving the throngs of Chinese tourists, we went to the heart of Tiananmen Square to see Chairman Mao's mausoleum. After waiting in line for thirty minutes, we climbed the steps and entered the front hall where Chinese were reverently placing bouquets of fake flowers in a rack beneath a white Mao statue. The flowers were sold outside the mausoleum for 2 Rmb, and were no doubt returned to the vendor once the rack was full. Then we were ushered into a small, circular room where the Great Helmsman lay in state - or at least that's what we were supposed to believe. In " The Private Life of Chairman Mao," - a book still banned in China - Mao's doctor described the frenzied attempts to preserve the Chairman's body after his death. No one had experience preserving bodies for much longer than a week, much less the "perpetual" preservation that Party leaders soon requested. So I was not surprised to detect a waxy sheen on Mao's " face" as we shuffled quickly past. We then entered the back hall, jam-packed with shouting vendors trying to sell cheap Mao souvenirs - any vestige of solemnity shattered.

On our final night in Beijing, we met up with Daniel, Nicole, and Suzanna and went for drinks at the Tree Lounge, where DJ Oro was spinning tunes. It was a great way to end a relaxing week - talking with friends and dancing until late.

 

Scott

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